This just in! Lutheran left tests theory that progressive doctrine is key to church growth

Adam and Eve in Garden, Michelangelo.jpg

From the first days of this blog, I have argued that religion-beat professionals need to dedicate more coverage to theological, doctrinal and cultural issues on the religious left (hardly anyone uses capital letters).

Why? Consider this equation: One of the biggest news stories of the late 20th Century was the rise -- in terms of public-square clout in America -- of what became known as the Religious Right (almost everyone uses capital letters).

There were, no doubt about it, big stories there to cover -- especially among evangelical Protestants shaken by the Roe vs. Wade ruling. But consider this question: Were religious conservatives, to some degree, stepping into a cultural void created by decades of numerical decline among liberal Protestants? I would argue that both halves of this equation needed lots of coverage.

There have been attempts by liberal churches to fight back against the demographics that have been pulling them down, by which I mean declining numbers of converts and the cumulative impact of decades of low birthrates.

There are valid stories to cover, in all of this. Thus, I was glad to see Religion News Service dedicate nearly 1,800 words to a feature about church-growth efforts at a Bible Belt (but college-town) congregation in the liberal Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.

As things turned out, 1,800 words were not enough. Here is the overture:

CARY, N.C. (RNS) -- At a Bible study on a weekday evening, Lutheran minister Daniel Pugh paced before a group of 50 church members in cargo shorts and a plaid button-down shirt talking about Adam and Eve.
Clutching a hand-held remote he clicked through a PowerPoint presentation, telling members of Christ the King Lutheran Church that one way to interpret the story of Adam and Eve is as a coming-of-age allegory about a pair of carefree teens caught red-handed having sex.
In this, alternative reading of The Fall, the “forbidden fruit” offered to Eve in Chapter 3 may be a metaphor for sex, he said, and the “serpent” may be a metaphor for a penis.
Lutherans have certainly come a long way since their namesake, Martin Luther, nailed his 95 theses to the Castle Church door in Wittenberg, Germany, 500 years ago this month, sparking the Protestant Reformation. These days, the largest U.S. denomination to trace its heritage to the great reformer, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, is struggling to reverse a decline in membership among its 9,252 churches.

There is a new vision behind all of this, one that the RNS feature says -- in a paraphrase quote -- that has "less to do with upholding the purity of Luther’s theology and more with the spirit of Luther’s reform agenda."

As always, use of this "reform" language means that the goal is to correct errors taught in the past. "Reform" implies that the "reformers" are right and the traditionalists were wrong. There are errors that need to be reformed.

As it turns out, this is precisely what the RNS story argues from beginning to end. This story does a fine job of covering half of a crucial debate. There is no need to cover the other side, since the story is based on the assumption that they are wrong.

What does this look like in practice?

That spirit of reform is evident in the casual clothes sans-collar Pugh wears for Bible study, in his embrace of technology and audio-visual enhancements -- the Bible study is posted to the church’s YouTube channel -- and in his theological exploration that brings recent academic scholarship into the pews and challenges members’ understanding of their faith. ...
Christ the King Lutheran Church wants to move beyond the hidebound traditions of American Protestantism, take risks, attract younger people and make Christianity more relevant to the 21st century.
“A lot of times churches are trying to preserve the legacy of who founded the congregations founded long ago,” said Elizabeth Eaton, the presiding bishop of the ELCA. “When you try to hold on to something so tightly, you strangle it. Taking a risk while being faithful to the core message of grace is my advice.” 

None of this is really new, as any reporter knows who has covered 40-plus years of debates among oldline Protestants about church growth and decline.

The assumption among oldline elites is that churches can grow if they offer large doses of technology, contemporary worship, heaven-and-hell-free evangelism and doctrine that baptizes changes (think "Christ of Culture") in the surrounding culture. That's been the message on the Protestant left since the 1970s.

What is interesting, among Lutherans, is that doctrinal traditionalists are now digging into the trends behind the slower rates of declines in their own pews. I am referring to the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod denomination in particular.

In other words, it would have been easy for the RNS team to have taken on this topic while drawing on the insights of Lutherans on both the doctrinal left and the right. It would have been especially interesting to learn if there are Lutherans on both sides of that divide who agree on anything, in terms of research into common problems and possible solutions.

But that is not what this story is about.

The story does offer interesting numbers about ELCA membership trends, a topic that cannot be avoided. Here is the bottom line, in a few crisp paragraphs. Pay close attention:

The ELCA saw its membership decline to 3.5 million members in 2016, down from 5.2 million in 1988 when the denomination was formed as a merger of three other smaller Lutheran groups. Today, 40 percent of its churches have between 50 and 100 worshippers each Sunday.
Christ the King, with 1,420 members, is determined to change that trajectory.
Like many older mainline churches across the country, Christ the King went through a period of stagnation.
Morale flagged. Conflict escalated. Clergy burned out. Members left.

At one point, Christ the King had 2,000 members -- with its numbers rising along with the growth of the surrounding community, an area loaded with colleges and universities. RNS notes that a year ago, attendance was down to 400.

With new leadership, that number is said to be up 27 percent. Also, this congregation is poised to join the national network of LGBTQ-friendly churches in the ELCA, which made headlines in the past decade with its embrace of LGBTQ clergy.

Will the local church take this stand?

Nathan Sliwa, the newly appointed minister for contemporary music, and a gay man, is banking on it.
“Before I took the job, I went to the pastors who were hiring me and asked them, ‘Are you ready for whatever potential backlash may happen from me being hired?’” he said. “They reassured me they would go to bat for me if anything happened.”

In this congregation, however, the real news is that Sliwa is young.

Like many mainline churches, membership at Christ the King skews older. Most church members are 50 and up, and the percentage of millennials is tiny.
“We’ve neglected young adults and anybody from the age range of 18 to 32, especially if you’re not married and don’t have kids,” said Sliwa, who at 24 is one of just 20 younger members.

The story does a fine job of discussing other changes in this one congregation that are linked to efforts to be more progressive on matters of doctrine and politics. All of that information is valid. That's what this story is about.

However, let's back up a moment. Remember this passage about this North Carolina congregation's dark days?

Morale flagged. Conflict escalated. Clergy burned out. Members left.

OK, I'll ask.

What was all that conflict about? Why did members start leaving? Where did those members go? Is there any chance the falling numbers were, in part, due to fights about progressive doctrinal trends in the ELCA? Did anyone attempt to talk to any of the Christ the King members who departed?

If the goal of this story was to cover Lutheran church-growth efforts, after decades of decline, I think it would have helped to talk to conservative Lutherans as well as those in the progressive ELCA leadership. Like I said, there is a larger story there.

But maybe this story was about one local church, as a living symbol of ELCA statistical trends right now. If that is the case, why not talk to people on both sides of key debates in this one congregation? Why not talk to the people who hit the exits, as well as the new leaders who won those fights?

Just asking.

FIRST IMAGE: Logo of the Reconciling In Christ movement. MAIN IMAGE: Temptation scene, Sistine Chapel Ceiling -- Michelangelo

Please respect our Commenting Policy